Imperial Garden Chinese Restaurant: Secret Garden_lowres

Imperial Garden offers a big selection of flavorful soups large enough for several diners to share.

WHAT: Imperial Garden Chinese Restaurant

WHERE: 3331 Williams Blvd., Kenner, 443-5691

WHEN: Lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat.

HOW: Credit cards

Reservations: Accepted

Stuck in the middle of a particularly dreary strip mall in Kenner, directly beneath the airport flight path, Imperial Garden does not blare with the promise of adventuresome eating. Inside the low-slung dining room of whitewashed paneling, patrons seem to plow through giant combination plates, but there's more going on here than sweet-and-sour sauce and egg rolls.

The tip-off should be the dry-erase board on the wall, currently shielded by an artificial Christmas tree, with specials written exclusively in Chinese characters. Then there's the steady flow of customers greeting and speaking with the staff in easy, fluent Chinese languages. When their dishes start stacking up on the lazy Susan at the center of the restaurant's large, round tables, even a curious patron across the room can tell that these people are about to tuck into something quite different from typical Americanized Chinese food.

Imperial Garden is another member of the small club of local restaurants serving an authentic Chinese menu in addition to the predictable bill of tame Cantonese-style fare. This other menu is not a secret, but it is not explicitly promoted, and the waitresses don't automatically offer it to all customers. Those requesting it, however, are met with great enthusiasm, and the women running the dining room grow downright ebullient while rattling off rapid-fire advice on what to order.

While the familiar Chinese-American menu is heavy on deep frying and stir-frying (except the perennial dieter's delight of steamed vegetables and rice), the authentic Chinese menu bakes, steams, boils and sautés its way through a larder of different meats, seafood, tofu and vegetables. The sauce counter in the kitchen must bulge with chili oils, fermented garlic, ground peppers and fish sauces that never make it into General Tso's army of puffy fried things.

Some of this cooking makes discreet appearances on Imperial Garden's standard menu. Listed amid the lemon chicken and kung bo beef are some sleeper hits like narrow, tender, sweet Chinese eggplant with garlic sauce and shredded pork, and pan-fried shrimp with black bean sauce. Thin, velvety Singapore-style rice noodles beat the common, oily lo mein hands down.

Soups offer a good entry point to the Chinese menu. They are very large and intended to be split around the table family-style. In one we tried, bok choy, onion and brown mushroom caps swirl around in a hearty version of vegetable soup. Another was West Lake soup, a traditional dish thick with stirred-in ropes and strands of egg whites and bits of ground beef. An aromatic pile of freshly chopped cilantro floated on the taut surface, and though the broth was bland, a quick dose of soy sauce and hot mustard from the condiment caddy brought it to life.

There's a variety of dishes with various meats or seafood cooked in a rough hash of green onion, fibrous ginger root, onions and murky, pungent sauce. The version we tried with oysters added the briny essence of a dozen good-sized bivalves all puffed up and plump after what must have been a brief stir-fry. Prepared the same way, however, the sweetness of chopped lobster meat was lost under a powerful ginger crunch.

Menu descriptions are quite brief, and even after consulting with the waitstaff, it can be hard to envision just what a particular order might yield. Imagine if you've never heard of gumbo before, much less tasted it, and you're presented with a menu listing simply "seafood gumbo." But not everything turns out so exotic. The braised duck was an interesting change from the more common Chinese-style roasted duck, but it had a reassuringly familiar taste of dark, fatty and moist meat in a salty marinade. Fresh sprouts and red and green peppers tempered the richness. Shrimp baked in their shells were as peppery as any local barbecue shrimp recipe and just as much of a rewarding mess.

The "vegetables" section of the menu doesn't necessarily list vegetarian items. More often than not, dishes of tofu, Chinese broccoli and eggplant, and enormous sliced mushrooms arrive with a good dose of pork. For instance, the bean curd roll was a small loaf made of broad, thin ribbons of soy curd soaked in vinegar. It tasted slightly creamy and was stuffed with chunks of roasted pork.

"Chef's special bean curd" featured wads of tofu that looked like fat beignets. The exteriors were batter-coated and fried, but the interiors had the texture of scrambled eggs and were imbued with the flavor of invisibly small minced particles of shrimp. Best of all, however, it passed one of the great tests of Chinese food: The next day, the leftover, sauce-soaked tofu tasted different but just as good in its own right when eaten cold directly from the fridge.

Prices on the Chinese menu are markedly higher than the standard menu, though portions are generally large and dishes can be shared. At the very least, a romp across this sometimes mysterious and intriguing menu gives enough fodder to fill any conversation gap that might arise around the table.